Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Why hide a positive story? PRs with a great tale to tell make Rupert play 'chase the phone call', while those who wish to keep things secret shouldn't post details on the Web...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 02/08/2004 Some time ago, I met a Texan on a mission. Our assignation was a breakfast meeting in a swanky yet discreet hotel in the middle of London -- a hotel so posh that it disguises itself as a set of office buildings. You could -- I did -- walk past it several times trying to work out where the place was. Inside, though, the place gave itself away through giant video screens, random works of art and people so hip they could replace Aunty Mabel's crumbling ischium.

In the middle of all this (the hotel, not Mabel's hip) was the restaurant, made out like a bookish teenager's bedroom, where my contacts awaited. My mystery American, his glamorous British PR minder and myself discussed secret deals his company was making with a large UK outfit. We also touched on the joys of cable companies and telcos, thusly:

Me: "Honestly, the cable companies are hopeless. They're filled with refugees who couldn't hack it in the telcos, and that's saying something."

Him: "I used to work for a telco, and I've worked closely with cable companies for years."

Me: "These scrambled eggs are nice."

The PR decided not to call security. The thrust of the meeting, when I wasn't gratuitously insulting everything my contact held dear, was that a rather exciting deal was going down and while they couldn't give me any details until the OK had been received from their customer, this would be happening any day now.

Days passed. I call the PR. "Um." she said. "It's up to the customer."

Now it's Monday, and the press release is out! Alvarion is selling BT wireless kit for a public broadband service -- the first that BT's doing in this country. Not a bad story, you'd think, given the amount of interest in, hype and genuine importance of broadband wireless. Alvarion thinks so. BT... well, who can tell what BT think? They have apparently released some information already -- last week, the rumour has it -- but nobody inside BT or out can quite put their finger on it. And there's a rumour that BT asked Alvarion not to put out a press release at all -- or if they did, to release it but not to tell anybody in the press.

After many phone calls (PR A -- "Call PR B!" PR B -- "Call PR A!" PR C... is not answering his phone because he's in the pub with the Guardian's telco correspondent) the Northern Ireland office of BT finally comes up with the goods. After one breakfast meeting, umpteen phone calls and a good three hours chasing people who really didn't want to be chased I have a tiny story that I think is nothing but positive news for all concerned but that BT didn't want me to write.

I don't mind getting the brush-off when BT's been a rancid bunch of cold pigeon poo, but when BT's actually done something good? What on earth are they hiding?

Tuesday 03/08/2004
It was a quiet morning. Mun was phoning a contact to ask about a security story, but the contact was clearly excited by something else. "You'll never guess what I've got!" he said. "It's a laptop with Linux on it -- comes pre-installed!"

Ah, this was more like it. "Who makes it?" Mun asked.

"I'm not sure I should tell you…" He went and checked his paperwork. "Oh, no, I'm fine. The NDA expires today."

"No time?"

"No time. Hey, it's HP. It's due to be announced today at LinuxWorld -- it's their big surprise."

And so, sanctified by HP's legal department, the bag was opened and the cat strolled out, picking its way daintily through the bean spillage. Mun wrote it up and wham! Lead story on the site.

After lunch, the phone rang. It was one of HP's PRs. "You've gotta take that down!" they said. No chance, matey. We would have had some sympathy -- after all, what pleasure could we take at squelching HP's big LinuxWorld keynote? -- were it not that HP's inept news handling had previously landed us and many others in the dirt (yes, the name of that mystery company can now be revealed). But we are nothing if not polite. "Why would we want to do that?" we asked. Various arguments were made, none of which cut much ice: the call ended with us declining to pull a story just because it messed up a marketing move, and HP's PR saying they'd get back to HP with the news.

Then our US comrades got in touch -- they were going to run our story, and just wanted to check a couple of things. We told them that HP was on the warpath, so there might be some heat. "Really?" said the US. "Then why is all the information already on the HP Web site?"

At this point, I'm ashamed to relate, there was some cackling in the office. We promptly edited the story to include some more details harvested from hp.com and were just republishing when the phone went again.

It was HP's PR, under new and strict instructions from above to shut us down and shut us down good. They were clearly labouring under the mistaken idea that NDAs were still in force. The office fell silent as Matt Loney fielded the call. "Uhhuh… mmm… uhuh", he said, while the receiver began to smoke at the seams. "No, no. I don't think so. In fact, we're just updating it with some more details. Accuracy is all, right?"

Apparently, it was not all right. There was more smoke, and perhaps a flash of lightning. "No, no," said Matt. "We're not taking the piss, but we think HP is" -- pause -- "We got that information from the HP Web site. It's all up there."

Comedy gold. The silence in the office was replaced by the sound of journalists falling off their chairs.

We did the decent thing: sent the link to the PR so they could go back to the HP lot and demonstrate that in the department of legs to stand on they were deficient to the tune of two. You have to feel for a PR stuck with this sort of mission impossible -- they knew that they were being asked to storm the citadel with nothing but a bladder on a string, but if the client insists… what can you do?

(On a different tack, we're not sure what to make of the PR who sent us a footy story entitled 'Snatch of the Day' -- 3 has got the rights to air Premiership goals ahead of terrestrial TV. Although it does seem apposite...)

Wednesday 04/08/2004
There's an interesting interview on the Web with David Cooper, chief technical officer of 3. He exudes enthusiasm, but glosses over areas where things might not have been as easy as he suggests. Still, running a technical operation that at one stage was rolling out 500 sites a week -- that's about one every 10 minutes -- is a genuine challenge.

Ah, but how about the question that everyone asks about 3 -- why no data services? Why concentrate on the low-revenue voice tariffs and not the commercial network access market that others are charging so much money for? Back-end infrastructure issues? Compatibility and support worries? Quality of service? Keeping revenue within the managed, charged-for services that are the only things you can access? No, the reason that 3 has avoided data and Internet access is -- journalists.

Yep. It's all our fault. Not only are we guilty of being very negative about 3 to start off with so we can be positive when it all turns out fantastic and thus getting "two stories for the price of one", but we're just out there to complain full stop. 3 cannot guarantee the quality of the stuff you get over the Web, so that would be just one more thing for the hacks to whinge about -- and why give us the ammunition?

This is an intriguing concept. You might think that with journalists spending so much of their time on the Web these days, they'd be able to distinguish between good old ordinary Web unreliability and anything extra the 3 network slips in. You might also think that the positive reception we've given other 3G cards should indicate that we only complain when things don't work. Indeed, most of the complaints we get from readers about reviews is that we've been too positive, giving companies the benefit of the doubt when we should be asking more and accepting fewer excuses. Or there's the old actors' method of coping with bad reviews: ignore them, and concentrate on counting the bums on seats.

But then, customers don't crop up much in Cooper's interview. He defends his fixed-price per-video fee by saying that per-megabyte pricing deals don't work. Customers don't understand them .He doesn't explain why he can't price things up front according to size, or even have a bandwidth meter built into the phone.

Must be those journalists again.

Thursday 06/08/2004
Meanwhile over in Vegas, SCO is hosting its SCO Forum annual shindig. The news, in case you missed it, was that now that SCO has 'obviously overachieved' in its objective of defending its intellectual property in the courts it's time for everyone to stop worrying about litigation and start looking at SCO's marvellous product line. Why, if it wasn't for those nasty journalists and that wicked, wicked IBM running-dog Groklaw being so negative, the company would have done great things.... golly, I know we can be an irresponsible lot, but who knew we were irresponsible for so much?

Unfortunately, SCO's new 'ignore the lawsuit' approach is somewhat sullied by a gleeful addendum, in which the company says that it has proof of IBM's evil actions in creating a version of its AIX Unix without SCO's permission. The details need not detain us: suffice it to note that SCO's 'obvious overachieving' hasn't as yet included the production of much by way of evidence to back up its claims, let alone something as substantial as a court decision in its favour. But this is the real deal, says SCO. Internal emails from within IBM (not shown) that prove the company knew what it was doing was wrong.

It takes IBM's running dog (by which I assume SCO means 'completely unconnected with IBM' -- in the absence of anything more coherent) Groklaw just under a day to take SCO's exciting new revelation, dig down into the archives of everything SCO's said and done, and what everyone else connected with this has said and done. It has produced chapter and verse that -- to this legal layman at least -- looks as if it comprehensively spikes the guns of the new attack before they've even swivelled into position. You can see why this might prove annoying, and why Groklaw was so loudly denounced from the stage at SCO Forum. At one point, anyone who contributed to Groklaw was asked to stand up, which to my eternal regret didn't seem to provoke an "I'm Spartacus" scene.

You have to admire a company that can put on a keynote called "Free Software and the Fools Who Use It", and then complains about FUD. The SCO management disconnect from reality must be close to complete: perhaps Groklaw's continued doggedness in demonstrating this might be the final push into complete psychosis.

Friday 06/08/2004
So, farewell then, Munir Kotadia. You'll have seen his name on many fine reports, especially on matters of computer security, but no more. Just because he's young, unencumbered and seemingly able to switch careers like some of us switch from Grolsch to Stella, he's decided to chuck it all in and zoom over to India for a while to live like a maharajah on thruppence-ha'penny a week while looking for himself (or, as we suspect is more likely, a cute Indian girly. Although his insistence on "at least a yacht. Or a brewery with a rowboat" as a dowry might limit the field).

There is unfortunately not enough room on the Internet to give you a full run-down of those previous activities of his that never made it to the news pages. It is sadly impossible to tell the world of his previous foray into PR that he gave up because he made too much money while spending too much time horizontal on the sofa listening to daytime TV he couldn't be bothered to sit up and actually watch. We always suspected this to be the case, but it's nice to have it verified. Neither can we relate the day he was sitting in the Pommeler's Rest pub -- cheap beer for cheap hacks -- and realised that he'd just redecorated his bedroom in the exact same décor as the lounge bar.

We'll miss him -- perhaps not quite as much as we might otherwise do, as quite a number of us seem to have promised to pop out and visit.

Apologies are due in advance -- there will be no Rupert's Diary next week, as I am deliberately placing myself in a part of the country where the phrase IT is merely an affirmation that one would like a cup of Earl Grey with one's black pudding breakfast. I shall be out of reach of cellphones, broadband, GPRS, 3G, WiFi, WiMAX, UWB, boys with forked sticks and editors with bulging veins on their foreheads. There may be malt whisky involved -- who can say.

Later, dudes.

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